Not long ago, an automobile pulled into the side of the road on the bank of the Volta River in Ghana, Africa, and a large, muscular type, dressed simply in a colorful Tahitian pareu, stepped out. He surveyed the jungle primeval and said, "Oh, isn't this fabulous, Daddy!" He then let go a Tarzan yell which sent the various animals which inhabit the African jungle scurrying for cover and swarmed nimbly up a 60-foot vine into the top of one of the forest giants. For the next hour or so Don Bragg swung joyfully from limb to limb in the African jungle, occasionally loosing another Tarzan yell and doing inestimable harm to the nervous systems of whatever of Tarzan's natural enemies happened to be in earshot. When finally he returned to earth, sweaty and hoarse but happy, he had realized one of two ambitions which have animated him since he was a 10-year-old at home in Penns Grove, N.J., 14 years ago. It was then that he fell under the spell of Edgar Rice Burroughs' fictional character and decided he wanted most in the world to 1) swing through the trees of the African jungle and 2) play Tarzan in the movie series which has been going on interminably since some time before the '20s. Now that Bragg has accomplished the first of his missions in life, it seems rather likely that he will polish off the second, too, sometime after the 1960 Olympic Games.
Although Bragg spends most of his time practicing and working out for the pole vault, it is doubtful that he will have any trouble mastering whatever forensic ability is required by the movie role of Tarzan. "I have a pretty original Tarzan call," he said the other day, "and I think I can play Tarzan better than anyone in the world." "He jolly well can," said Parry O'Brien, the Olympic shotput champion who accompanied Bragg to Africa. "And he'll crack if he doesn't succeed."
Bragg, who has traveled over a good deal of the globe demonstrating his ability as a pole vaulter, has one more attribute which should make his bid for a Tarzan role good. When he vaulted at an indoor meet in Paris not long ago, he registered on the impressionable French as a sort of male equivalent to Brigitte Bardot. The next day Paris-Presse, in an eight-column banner, said: "An 'Oh!' of stupor: Bragg had just taken off his jacket." Said the Paris Journal: "The handsomest arms in the world." Said Bragg: "It was wonderful. And I think we helped interest in track in France, too." At any rate, Bragg proved his sex appeal conclusively.
However, before he makes a real assault on Hollywood, Bragg has a couple of other ambitions. He would like to pole-vault 16 feet, and he would like to compete for the U.S. in the 1960 Olympics. A leg injury kept him off the 1956 team, although he cleared 14 feet 8½ inches on his last attempt in the Olympic trials after a shot of novocain eased the pain in his injured leg. A high wind blew his pole into the standard after Bragg had completed the jump, knocking off the crossbar, and the jump was ruled no good. Since then Bragg has done 15 feet 9½ inches (see pages 44-45) and has been consistent all of this season at 15 feet or higher.
"My mental attitude has improved," he explains. "And I have more time for practice, and I follow a more regular routine since I went into service." Bragg is a private first class in the Army, stationed at Fort Dix. He is in special services and expects to teach classes in physical training when he finishes competing in the AAU, U.S.-Russia and Pan-American track meets.
Bragg is a big man for the pole vault. He stands 6 feet 3, weighs from 198 to 215 pounds, although the lighter weight is better for competition. "I've got to watch it," he says, seriously. "When it goes up, I eat one or two meals a day until I get back down. Lots of protein. Beefsteaks, things like that."
Don began preparing for his destiny when he was a youngster in New Jersey. He set up a complicated series of ropes and platforms in the woods by his home and practiced swinging along a 600-foot course every day. The police, understandably afraid that other youngsters not so well equipped for the Tarzan role might come to grief on the course, tore it down twice, but Don doggedly repaired his outdoor gym and returned to his practice as Tarzan. As a result, he built tremendous arm, chest and back muscles which stood him in good stead when he began pole-vaulting.
"The pole vault requires everything," he says. "A powerful upper body to take the shock of the pull-up, tremendous arm strength for the handstand you need at the top of the vault, good speed and good legs for the approach." All of these physical attributes, Bragg has in generous measure. The Africans who trailed curiously along on his excursion into the jungle called him wonderingly, "Baboma Ghana," which Bragg says means "big trouble." He is an impressive sight when he stands at the head of the vault runway, shaking his hands gently, the pole resting on his shoulder, his eyes fixed hypnotically on the crossbar of the vault standard. He has, in the past, been considered short-tempered and rude because he concentrates so thoroughly on the task at hand that he is brusque with officials, competitors, sportswriters or photographers who try to break in on that concentration. Actually, away from the heat of competition, he is a cheerful, pleasant man, anxious to please. He is handsome enough to play Tarzan and personable enough, too, and, from his physique, he would be at least two to one against a medium-sized lion and maybe three to one against a small one.
He returned from the 32-day tour of Africa somewhat leg-weary from putting on vault exhibitions as often as twice a day and, paradoxically, some six pounds overweight. He intends to cut down the weight by his Spartan diet and take care of the leg weariness by generous helpings of sleep and rest.
He has, for the time being, put aside his ambitions to play Tarzan in the movies. "The AAU doesn't like my talking about it," he says. "And I've got other things to do. To be a great champion, you have to live, eat and breathe your sport, and that's what I do with pole-vaulting. I hope some day to reach 16 feet. Frankly, with present equipment, I doubt that anyone will ever go any higher than that. I believe that I can do 16 feet if everything is right—the pole, the runway, the weather, me. I've been using one pole for a long time now and trying to break in a couple of others. The old pole has just the right amount of bend for me. It snaps out just fast enough. The two new ones recover too quickly, but they'll be all right when I get them broken in."
Bragg prepares for a meet by doing push-ups, climbing ropes and running. He vaults only once a week and that just to polish his technique. "The hardest part of the vault is the pull-up just as you start your swing," he says. "You have to release a final, tremendous burst of energy all at once."
When he did 15 feet 9½ at Philadelphia, Bragg's technique was nearly perfect. "I felt very good," he said. "The vault was just right except that I think my steps were a little off coming down the runway so that I took off too close to the pit. When I stand at the head of the runway, concentrating, I say to myself, 'Don, blast down this runway. All your strength into one effort.' I did that night."
Bragg may be the first man to clear 16 feet. He came within a deep breath of his thick chest of going over world-record heights time and again before he made the 15-9½ at Philadelphia, and his body arched well over the bar on that jump. He often tips the bar off the standard as he starts his drop, with his chest.
"I'd like to break the outdoor record this season," he says. "The way I feel now, if it doesn't come in the next month or so, I'll never get it."
Regardless of that, Bragg seems likely to achieve his real ambition. Never in the history of movie Tarzans has there been one so completely dedicated to the role or so thoroughly prepared for it. As soon as Donald George Bragg learns to say, with the proper dramatic impact, "Me Tarzan, you Jane," he'll be completely ready. It shouldn't be hard. After all, Tarzan was raised by apes, and he learned it.
HIGH IN A TREE IN AFRICA, U.S. POLE VAULTER DON BRAGG MAKES LIKE TARZAN